A Chiang Mai group hopes to gather 10,000 signatures on a petition to pressure the government into decriminalizing prostitution.
The Empower Foundation, which supports sex workers, is urging authorities to remove all penalties for selling sex, saying the 1960 law that made prostitution illegal invites corruption and exploitation.
“Although we work in legal entertainment venues, we are the people considered breaking the law because of the Anti-Prostitution Act,” said Empower Coordinator Thanta Laowilawanyakul. “The law was created to help people in this industry develop their lives, but police only go after the workers (not the employers) and don’t help them at all.”
Thanta claimed that 80 percent of the women working in the sex industry are mothers or the breadwinner for the entire family. It’s also a very transient business, with most women working in it for a short time, often due to a financial crisis. However, if they are arrested, they are branded for life with a criminal record, she said.
“Walking away from this point is difficult. If they have a criminal background, it’s hard for them to apply for a job or start a new life,” Thanta said.
According to the Royal Thai Police Office, more than 24,000 people were arrested, prosecuted and fined for sex work-related offenses in Thailand last year.
Empower collected 1,000 signatures at the massive anti-government protest on Sept. 19, an event also staged to demand more rights and better protection for Thailand’s LGBT population. But even if the group gathers the targeted 10,000 names, changing the 1960 law, which was amended in 1996 to close loopholes and gave police increased powers to prosecute, will be nearly impossible to change. It’s been tried repeatedly.
Thammasat University researcher Mataluk Orungrot wrote in 2018 that the law doesn’t work because of the chronic corruption of Thai police. Brothels in the form of massage parlors, karaoke bars and gentlemen’s clubs can pay off the police and still reap a windfall.
Rangsit University criminology expert Jomdet Trimek has said repeatedly over the years that bribes start from 200,000 baht a month and reach as much as 400,000 for venues trafficking in illegal migrants from neighboring countries.
The government long has known how much it’s losing in tax revenues. In 2003, the Justice Ministry held an unprecedented public hearing on a government proposal to legalize prostitution and register sex workers. Representatives from the government, sex industry, non-government organizations and academics all laid out their cases for how legalization could benefit human rights, legal, economic, cultural, social and moral problems.
In June this year, Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, an MP with the tiny Thai Civilized Party, announced another attempt to get a Lower House committee to consider both legalizing prostitution and sex toys, all in the name of combatting rape. He tries every year and every year it goes nowhere.
That’s not to say the government hasn’t taken notice of Empower’s petition. A spokesman for the Social Development and Human Security Ministry women’s affairs section said it was reviewing the Anti-Prostitution Act with an eye toward amendments that could be put up for public debate next year.
A major obstacle toward changing the law is the massive corruption that illegal prostitution fuels. Police get rich off taking bribes from go-go bars, massage parlors and brothels, even accepting cash to allow underage prostitution to continue. At the same time, they collect fines off the sex workers employed by those paying the bribes.
A 2014 report by a United Nations anti-AIDS agency estimated Thailand has 123,530 sex workers in Thailand but Empower and other social-welfare groups peg it as closer to 300,000, many of them migrants from neighboring countries or even underage children.
“Sex workers are lawfully registered in Germany, Amsterdam and Singapore. Why not Thailand?” Thanta asked. “The answer is no because the government thinks it will ruin the country’s reputation. Meanwhile, Germany has over 700,000 prostitutes, yet the profession is not stigmatized.”